I started writing in my very early twenties… I had a couple of short stories published, but I was teaching full-time so after a while the writing slipped into the margins. I never gave it up but I didn’t send work out all through my twenties and thirties. I kept the stories to myself at home. I was just writing quietly myself in the suburbs.
I did try and give up writing… It felt like a burden in some ways, an interruption to life. I just wanted to get on and live a normal life without this sort of weight on me, but the stories would push up and I would write them.
In 2010, I sent two stories to The Stinging Fly magazine… They published them and the editor Declan Meade asked if I had any more and of course I had. He runs The Stinging Fly Press and he published the short stories as a collection called The China Factory. It was a lovely affirmation.
My collection was reviewed in The Guardian by Anne Enright… and was nominated then for the Guardian First Book Award. It got a bit of attention and London agents came knocking. I was very lucky in that I had some choice.
I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted an agent… I thought they were going to want a novel and might put pressure on me. But I went to London and met some agents who were interested. I thought about it for a week and then I went with Simon Trewin. He didn’t put any pressure on me. He left me alone and I didn’t even tell him the plot of my novel.
When I was writing the novel, I began to worry that I was a one-trick pony… I thought that maybe I had just had a little bit of success with The China Factory and it wouldn’t happen again for me, that I wouldn’t write like I used to. So what I had to do was re-establish the same conditions in which I had written stories for over 20 years.
I returned to the cave again… I came off Facebook and Twitter and I didn’t really go out much. I didn’t have much contact with people. I wrote the novel in as much of a cave as I had done with the short stories.
I wrote the novel Academy Street over a year… and sent it to my agent. A few days later I got a call and he said he loved it. He sent it out and several UK publishers were interested. There was an auction. Simon suggested I meet with all the publishers who had bid on it so I’d get a sense of each of them. They were all wonderful. I could have gone with any of them.
I didn’t rush into it… I came home and gave it some thought. Then Jamie Byng of Canongate called. I was very impressed by his enthusiasm. He’s evangelical about books – he’d stick his neck out for any book he believes in. Books are in his DNA.
I signed a three-book deal with Canongate… They bought Academy Street, an unwritten novel, and the Irish and UK rights of The China Factory. It felt surreal. It was a lovely, lovely experience and I feel incredibly grateful. It’s wonderful to be wanted to agents or publishers, but ultimately none of it makes the writing any better, and the writing is what counts.
It’s not like you never have to work again… The book deal just means I can write my next novel without worrying too much. But you have to budget yourself over several years.
I’m on a career break… I had been teaching all those years while writing short stories. It’s great to be on a career break, to have the time and space to write. But writing is still difficult in the sense that you’re full of self-doubt.
I couldn’t not write… I have given myself over to it now entirely. That doesn’t mean it’s all pleasurable – it’s anything but, a lot of the time. But on the other hand I couldn’t not do it. The thing about writing is that you’re never switched off. It’s a joy sometimes but a burden other times. But I’m not complaining. I feel incredibly lucky.
I never thought I’d be a writer… When I was young, it was never on my radar at all. Writing came to me out of nowhere.
The highlight for me was when my Aunt Carmel read my novel… Just before it came out, I gave it to her to read because she was an inspiration. She had been a nurse in New York and she told me stories, some of which I used in the main character Tess’s life. When Carmel read it, she was very touched and said to me, “I’m so glad you thought there was something in my life worthy of putting in a book.” So for me, the highlight of everything that’s happened was that my aunt liked the book.
Academy Street was published by Canongate in October 2014 and went on to win the Eason Novel of the Year award at the 2014 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. It is being released in the US in April 2015.
Photo credit: Tony Carragher